The Worm of Death (Nicholas Blake)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Already one can see the beginning of the end, for Blake (like Carr, whose late books are filled with “ginches” and “ginchlets”) is becoming a dirty old man.  Strangeways is nearly seduced by one of the suspects; he interrogates an elderly whore, “appreciatively eyeing her opulent surfaces” while she “slapped her bulging left breast, as if to admonish it not to leap out at Nigel, which it showed every sign of doing”; and he has a long conversation with a nude woman in an artist’s studio. There is also more violence, as Strangeways indulges in two bouts of fisticuffs with one of the suspects, who has an unpleasant habit of attacking journalists on sight. Such things are not desirable, and stem from a desire to be “modern” and “relevant,” neglecting characterisation and detection in favour of cheap sensation.

The problem and its elucidation, however, are admirably contrived. In the Thames-side district of Greenwich, Dr. Piers Loudron vanishes from his home, and is found, his wrists cut, in the Thames; murder clumsily disguised as suicide. Suspicion naturally falls on his family, all of whom stand to gain financially. Although we have met the various types before in Blake’s books – the tyrant, the vamp, the lower-class fiancé, the siblings who hate each other, the siblings who protect each other – the characterisation is good.

Strangeways, helped by Chief Detective-Inspector Wright, pays his usual attention to psychology and to lit. crit. clues, rather than material clues. The solution is solid and well-clued, although the reader will quite easily spot the psychopathic murderer. Two larger flaws are that the book is modelled too closely on Agatha Christie‘s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), and the amount of coincidence, bringing to mind the famous murder of Rasputin: A drugs him, B kills him, C removes the body.

Blurb (UK)

He intends to kill me.  And I must let him kill me.  These words, written in a secret diary, set out the savage predicament of one of the characters in The Worm of Death.  When the diary-writer disappears, his family ask Nigel Strangeways to protect their interests during the police investigation.  The task is made much more difficult by the strong motive that each of the family had for murder, and by the fact that some of the suspects – a doctor and his sister, a business man, a waster, an ex-model girl, and a young kitchen-sink painter – are fluent and enthusiastic liars.

The root of the trouble lies deep in the past.  Strangeways finds himself roaming and inquiring through Greenwich, the Georgian houses, the riverside and the docks – a landscape that is excitingly evoked by the author.  There is a second killing.  And it is only by the intervention of Clare Massinger that Strangeways himself avoids death in a macabre scene which ends with the execution, unofficial yet just, of the murderer.

Nicholas Blake is among the most celebrated of detective novelists.  The Worm of Death is a thrilling and distinguished successor to such novels as Minute for Murder and A Penknife in My Heart.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (13th October 1961): Mr. Nicholas Blake’s new detective story involves the urbane and coy household of Nigel Strangeways and Clare Massinger in the investigation of the death of a rich doctor, a widower with grown-up children and an adopted son, any one of who might turn out to have been active in causing his end.  This is a classical detective tale, in which motives abound and the police, intelligent and expert, do not quite match the flair of the gifted amateur.  Mr. Blake tirelessly and entertainingly baffles the reader, bringing in lots of sharply distinguished characters, all seen in the light of humour, though among them are some of the combative and thoroughly awkward persons who are apt to turn up in his books.  The Greenwich scenery is excellent, mingling all that makes Greenwich currently attractive to the fashionable house agents with the traditional life that goes on beside the busy and enthralling river and also with the more grim and lurid aspects of riverside fog and desolation.  If any fault is to be found, it is that poor Miss Massinger has rather too much to do at the end of the story.

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 22nd October 1961): Family murder mystery in Greenwich, very nicely described down to the last river stench.  First victim, who tells us he’s for it in prologue, is elderly Jewish doctor.  Some way from his best.  I think Clare may be getting Nigel Strangeways down.  I’d advise him to do her in and conceal her in one of her own castings.